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Last month my year to live journey came to an end.

For nearly one year, a small group of us met each month at the Village Zendo in New York to discuss mortality and to think constructively about how we might go about living our lives if we truly had just one year to live.

I documented my thoughts throughout the year in this blog.  What I did not write about was the all-too-real end-of-life journey of my earliest childhood friend Marisa, who was courageously facing metastatic cancer while I went about my hypothetical journey.

On the night of November 17, our class did a “dissolution of the body” meditation — a guided exercise used by Tibetan lamas to prepare people for the journey of death and beyond.   I’d be pretty hard-pressed to tell you what it was like because right at the point when our teacher said, “Resist the temptation to fall asleep,” I fell promptly asleep.

But that’s not the important thing.  Five days later, Marisa passed away.

In my grayest moments, I’ve dismissed my own year to live process as frivolous because I am, as much as any of us can claim, healthy.

Then I remember the last time I visited Marisa.  We laughed about the silly details of our childhoods together, like how we let our brothers con us into racing their dirt bikes off a ramp, flying through the air over us (a la Evel Knievel) while we lay completely flat on the asphalt.  And the great trips our families took together involving rented beach shacks and RV trailers.

“It’s hard to come up with a memory from childhood that doesn’t include you guys,” she smiled.

With a lot of hard-earned wisdom under her belt, Marisa posted on Facebook in June: “9 years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  I’ve seen my share of ups and downs over the years but I seem to only really remember the ups.  The downs will come and go – no reason to get stuck on them.  But the ups, those are the memories you keep forever.”

Of course, “forever” is a relative term.  Marisa’s ups are now my ups.  And maybe someday my own children will remember parts of the stories and her ups will be theirs.  But eventually it all fades into some ethereal mystery.

Still, I like her view of things — if we can put the things we’re grateful for into some kind of internal treasure box to look back upon sometimes (all things in moderation, of course), we’d probably be doing ourselves a world of good.

I can imagine that burying a child of any age has to be the most painful act of all.  I’ve heard many people question faith and god in these circumstances.  Allow me to share a passage from one of the best books on dying I read all year (and believe me, I read my fair share of them!).

“Here If You Need Me” by Kate Braestrup is the autobiography of the chaplain for the Maine game warden who herself was widowed with four young children when her husband – a state trooper – was killed in a car accident.  I’ve read and re-read this passage many times:

My children asked me, “Why did Dad die?”

I told them, “It was an accident.  There are small accidents, like knocking over your milk at the dinner table.  And there are large accidents, like the one your dad was in.  No one meant it to happen.  It just happened.  And his body was too badly damaged in the accident for his soul to stay in it anymore, and so he died.

“God does not spill milk.  God did not bash the truck into your father’s car.  Nowhere in the scripture does it say, ‘God is car accident’ or ‘God is death.’  God is justice and kindness, mercy, and always – always – love.  So if you want to know where God is in this or in anything, look for love.”

I’ve been looking for love everywhere.  I saw it in my fellow classmates and our teachers at the Zendo this year.  I saw it in heartfelt comments on this blog.   I saw it played out in my own family.  I saw it in the acts of complete strangers on our trip overseas.  I saw it in the hugs and stories shared at Marisa’s funeral.

I’ve got a year’s worth of learnings, sayings and little nuggets I could end with.  I think, though, I’m going to leave it with this.  If you find wisdom in it, please use it to inform your own journey.  And please keep me posted!

Every day in Zen temples around the world, the following verse marks the close of the day’s ceremonies:

Let me respectfully remind you, life and death are of supreme importance.  Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost.  Each of us must strive to awaken.  Awaken!  Take heed, do not squander your lives.

May our paths cross again soon,

Barbara

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Banksy's Beat Up Buddha

211 days remain

On my recent trip to London, I was strolling in an outdoor market with friends when one of them pulled us into a stall featuring the work of her favorite artist, Banksy.

For me, it was love at first sight.

Banksy is a graffiti artist who makes high art out of the political.  His work can be seen on walls from post-hurricane New Orleans to the military division between Palestine and Israel.  With Banksy, there’s always at least one subversive message to be discovered.

In that market stall, so many of the 9×12 canvas reproductions of his work jumped out at me:

Ok – maybe it’s not the kind of thing you’d want hanging on your wall.  Or is it?

I picked up a canvas with Banksy’s beat up Buddha, complete with black eye, bloodied nose, neck brace and bandaged hand.  I wondered what the kids would make of this.

So I plunked down 25 pounds and bought it.

The first thing I did when I got home was to pound a nail into the empty wall behind the toilet in the bathroom and hang it.   It’s a prime piece of art real estate for the male gender, who probably spend more time staring at that space than any other, I reasoned.

And then I waited.

Evan noticed it first.  He came running out of the bathroom, “I love it,”  he shouted.

“What does it mean?”  I asked.

“Buddha picked a fight,” he said.  “It means he’s not all that you think he his.”

“Great!  Keep going,” I encouraged.

Two weeks later, I have a collection of potential meanings from our family and friends.  We’ve had a lot of fun with this, racking our brains, rolling our eyes at some interpretations, applauding others:

  • It’s a representation of the famous Zen saying, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”
  • A calm mind can handle the worst of human nature.
  • It’s a statement about the Chinese government invading Tibet and killing the monks.
  • It’s a statement about the Burmese government attacking monks.
  • It’s not possible to be perfect.
  • Organized religion can be a giant deception.
  • Since the original was spray painted on a wall in London and was already painted over, it shows that everything is an illusion.

I’m sure there’s a lot more that can be said (please feel free to add your interpretation), but I learned a lot from our little exercise in art appreciation.

Life can be taken sitting down, observing.  That can be a good thing.  But it can also be grabbed, interpreted, discussed, debated,  found wanting, enjoyed.  And when we take it to this level, it’s all the richer.  Life is art.

Banksy-inspired art

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If you can spare 10 minutes, take a look at this beautiful video about the organization co-founded by one of my Year to Live teachers, Robert Chodo Campbell.  (He and Sensei Barbara Joshin O’Hara of the Village Zendo facilitate our monthly sessions.)

To Rose, the woman who allowed the filmmakers to capture her final days, three bows.

Simply click on this link:

NEW YORK ZEN CENTER FOR CONTEMPLATIVE CARE

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321 Days Remain

Like unexpected money found in last season’s coat pocket, I discovered a scrap of paper in my wallet this morning.

It’s a quote I must have torn out of a magazine and tucked away for a rainy day, by Charlotte Joko Beck.

On this gray day that’s neither winter nor spring, when my mood seems to match the weather, I’m glad to have found it.

Life always gives us exactly the teacher we need at every moment.

This includes

every mosquito,

every misfortune,

every red light,

every traffic jam,

every obnoxious supervisor (or employee),

every illness,

every loss,

every moment of joy or depression,

every addiction,

every piece of garbage,

every breath.

This gets me thinking of my wise friend Dana.  When I start complaining about various and sundry things/situations/people in life, she likes to say, “What’s the gift in this?

The question always takes me by surprise, followed quickly by irritation at the seeming Pollyanna-ness of articulating an answer.

But sometimes I can catch the shadow of a teacher and a vague feeling of hopefulness.

The big question for the Last Year to Live is, of course, can I learn to accept even mortality itself as a teacher?

And how to do that?

Only by parceling down situations into minuscule moments, and then even further.  Breath by breath.  Atom by atom.

By the way, if you don’t know Charlotte Joko Beck, I’m very pleased to be making the introduction!   It was only around age 40 that this mom of four — newly separated from her husband and working as a teacher and a secretary — began meditating.

She went on to write  one of the most engaging books I’ve read about living fully in the face of the pesky challenges of daily living — relationships, work, fear, ambition, and suffering.

I love the interaction she had with an interviewer for this article:

Donna Rockwell: I read your books.

Charlotte Joko Beck: Oh you read. Well, give up reading, O.K.?

Donna Rockwell: Give up reading your books?

Charlotte Joko Beck: Well, they’re all right. Read them once and that’s enough. Books are useful. But some people read for fifty years, you know. And they haven’t begun their practice.

That said, I’m signing off to get on with it.  Have a wonderful weekend, everyone!



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365 Days Remain

Tonight begins my “Year to Live” journey.  Twenty-five of us are assembled in an open loft space in SoHo, sitting on black plastic folding chairs, facing the front of the room.

Robert “Chodo” Campbell, the co-founder of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, asks us to close our eyes.

In his sonorous British baritone, he instructs us to visualize ourselves going to the doctor’s office.

“Really feel yourself in that space,” he instructs.  Gravely, he begins:

“We’ve got the results of your blood work and the scan, and I’m afraid it’s worse than we thought.  You have, at most, 12 months to live.  Go home and put all of your affairs in order.  The nurse can call someone to come and pick you up.  You can stay here as long as you need and collect your thoughts.”

I feel my palms getting moist.  Would my doctor really say, “Go home and put all of your affairs in order,” I wonder.  I’d like to think he’s got more soul than that.

What would he say?  “Go home and be with Dave and the boys.”  That’s better.  Dave and the boys are a hell of a lot more comforting than my “affairs.”

Chodo rings the large gong at his feet, and we slowly open our eyes.  Then he asks us to think about a couple of things.

  • Who will you tell?

Dave.  I’d have the nurse call Dave right away.

My mom and dad?  I wonder.  My dad recently turned 80, and my mom is in her late 70s.  They’d need to know, but not right away.

The boys?  This is unimaginable.  How do you break such news to a 9 and a 6-year old?

My brothers and sisters-in-law.  Yes, I can do that.  I need their support.

Susan, Deb, Joy, the Lisa’s…  My list of friends grows and starts arranging itself neatly in my mind.  I feel a bit of relief.

  • What does this change for you?

Wow.  It’s immediately apparent.  “I’ve got to get off FaceBook and email,” I say to myself with certainty.  Superficial, I know.  But it’s a start.

It’s clear that I’ll need all of my remaining days to think about these things.  I’m grateful that the Year to Live program gives me that chance.  Judging by the reaction of my friends, most people would rather re-do the SATs before putting themselves through a course like this.

As the evening winds to a close, seven of us jam ourselves silently into the tiny elevator.  Before we hit the lobby, we stop at the 3rd floor where a woman moves to get in.  Seeing that it’s full, she backs away with a start.

“I guess she doesn’t want to be with 6 dying people,” I quip as the doors close.

A classmate behind me says softly, “But there are 7 of us.”

“I wasn’t counting myself,” I respond.  Full denial has already set in.

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